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Theology

In the beginning: Theological discussions in the first centuries of the Church centered on the nature of God, the Trinity, as well as repentance, holy living, and salvation. The theologians of this era are commonly called the Fathers of the Church, and so the era is called the Patristic Age. There were fewer fathers in the west, so the Patristic age did not last as long in the west.

Apologetics
The branch of theology that is concerned with analyzing and devising intellectual techniques for defending the Christian faith and with producing such defenses. C. S. Lewis is the best-known modern Christian apologist. It is the opposite of polemics, in that apologetics attempts to win people to Christ, while polemics attempts to tear them away from other belief systems.
Apologist
A person who produces an intellectual defense of the Christian faith, in either oral or written form.
Apology
An intellectual defense of the Christian faith in either oral or written form.
Apostolic
Among scholars and theologians, the apostolic era is the time when the twelve apostles and Paul were still alive (roughly the second half of the first century), and the sub-apostolic era is the time immediately after that (roughly the second century). The word apostolic also refers to teachings or activities that personally characterize anyone who was called an apostle during the apostolic era, but most especially the twelve apostles and Paul.

In church use, apostolic means a teaching, a practice, or a church that was started by any of the apostles and has continued to the present day. The Armenian Apostolic Church, for example, has that name because it was founded by the apostle Thaddeus, one of the Twelve.

There are Pentecostal denominations in the United States that call themselves apostolic and even have leaders with the title of apostle. These churches claim to be reconstructions or new manifestations of the ancient church.

Arianism
Arianism was the teaching of Arius, a priest in the Alexandrian church. He died in AD 336, and most of his writings have not survived to this day. His teaching was that Jesus Christ is not eternal, that His begetting from the Father was an event in time, which has the effect of making Jesus the first and most exalted of God’s creations. Essentially, any teaching is Arian if it says that Jesus was a human being who found the way, or if it says that Jesus was a medium and that a separate being named Christ was His familiar. (“Christ” is Jesus’ job title, so the phrase “Christ Jesus” is analogous to “Professor Smith” in that Jesus and Smith hold the job titles of Christ and Professor, respectively.) The Arian controversy lasted from AD 318 to 381. The Council of Nicaea in AD 325 officially declared that Arianism was a heresy, basing their findings in part on John 1:1-18. The resolution that they adopted to combat Arianism is the Nicene Creed. In the continuing controversy, Athanasius was the chief advocate of orthodoxy and because of his labors the orthodox position prevailed. The Council of Constantinople in AD 381 essentially ended the controversy by reaffirming the condemnation of Arianism.
Apollinarianism
Apollinarius was born about AD 310 at Laodicea in Syria and became a lay reader under Bishop Theodotus, who was an Arian. Apollinarius’ error was to deny the human nature of Jesus Christ. He taught that Jesus did not have a human soul, but that the Logos became one with the flesh in Mary’s womb and functioned as His soul. Under this theory, Jesus was totally divine, had no human nature at all, and could not be tempted. Apollinarius’ critics, including Gregory of Nyssa, showed that Apollinarius’ teachings contradicted the Biblical accounts of Jesus’ human experience. Gregory also pointed out that according to Hebrews 2:17, Jesus had to have a human nature in order to redeem humanity. Apollinarius left the Church to start his own sect in AD 375. His teachings were condemned by Bishop Damasus of Rome by AD 377, by the Council of Alexandria in AD 378, the Council of Antioch in AD 379, and the Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in AD 381. The Roman Emperor implemented the Council’s rulings in his decrees between AD 383—388 by outlawing Apollinarian worship. Apollinarius also taught millennialism, which the Ecumenical Council of Constantinople also ruled heretical.
Arminianism
Arminianism is a view of the atonement that is named, not for Armenia, but for the Dutch Protestant theologian Arminius. It was in response to Calvinism. Because Calvin’s views were already established when Arminius formulated his rebuttal, Calvinists attacked Arminianism as a heresy, even though both viewpoints are legitimately drawn from scripture and within the historic mainstream. The controversy has not ended: recently, a well-known preacher misrepresented Arminianism on television and portrayed it as a dangerous heresy. The Arminian position is as follows:
  • Salvation is conditional upon repentance and faith.
  • The atonement is universal; that is, Jesus died for everyone.
  • We are morally free. We must choose between good and evil, salvation and death; and we are held accountable for our choice. (That is, Jesus died for everyone, but only those who have faith are saved.)
  • The grace of God can be resisted. We can choose not to be saved. (Matthew 23:37)
  • There is danger of apostasy. While it is not possible to lose one’s salvation through commission of a sin or misplace it through oversight, it is possible to deliberately abandon it—or to put it in other words, you can’t fall from grace, but you can jump. (Hebrews 6:4-5)

Within the United States, most evangelical groups that are Wesleyan in theology or origin adhere to some form of Arminianism. Outside the United States, most evangelicals subscribe to some form of Arminianism. Arminianism is more compatible with eastern Orthodoxy than Calvinism is.

(Hyper) Calvinism
Jean Cauvin (John Calvin) was the first systematic theologian of the Protestant movement. His Institutes of the Christian Religion are justly considered a theological and literary masterpiece. The term Hyper-Calvinism generally refers to a Calvinistic position on the atonement, formulated by the Synod of Dort in 1619. It is legitimately drawn from scripture and within the historic mainstream:
  • God has determined in advance who will be saved and who will be condemned.
  • Jesus died only for the elect. (That is, He did not die to save the people that God predetermined were going to hell.)
  • We cannot choose to be saved or to be condemned; God has already determined that.
  • The grace of God is irresistible. No one who is chosen by God for salvation can turn it down.
  • All the elect will finally be saved. Apostasy (the deliberate abandonment of salvation) is impossible. In some quarters, this point is known as Eternal Security.
Within the United States, most non-Wesleyan evangelical Christians adhere to some version of Calvinism or a compromise position between Calvinism and Arminianism.
Catholic, Catholic Church, Universal Church
The word catholic comes from a Greek word meaning universal, and in early Christian writings it is a synonym for Christian. The Church is catholic in the sense that there are no restrictions on who can join; it is open to everyone in every place. Before the split between Rome and Constantinople in AD 1054, all Christians referred to themselves as orthodox and catholic, but after the split, the west tended to call themselves ‘catholics’ and the east tended to call themselves ‘orthodox.’ In the west, especially after the Reformation, the term Catholic, when written with a capital letter, generally refers to the Roman Catholic Church. Nevertheless, many Anglican and Orthodox Christians still refer to themselves as catholics in the original sense, just as western Christians refer to themselves as orthodox. In other words, it is possible to be catholic without being Catholic, and orthodox without being Orthodox.

The modern Catholic Church is the direct continuation of only one of the five ancient patriarchates of the ancient catholic Church. (See patriarch.) For that reason, the phrase ‘catholic church’ in documents written before AD 1054 is often translated ‘universal church.’

The Nicene, Apostles, and Athanasian Creeds were all composed before the split, thus when they speak of the ‘catholic church,’ they are referring to all five patriarchates of the ancient church, not just the patriarchate of Rome and its modern continuation.

Christ
Christ is the Greek word that Greek-speaking Jews used as the translation of the Hebrew word messiah. Thus to Greek-speaking Jews and to the God-fearing gentiles who attended the synagogue, christ meant either a mundane Hebrew king, such as Solomon, David, or Hezekiah, or the apocalyptic king at the end of time. However, the Greek word christ comes from a verb that means to rub down an athlete with lineament—the closest equivalent in Greek to the concept of anointing. Therefore, as we moved out of Palestine and into the Greek-speaking world to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah, outsiders invented the word Christian to deride us.
Donatism
The Donatist controversy erupted after AD 300 in North Africa. A churchman by the name of Donatus wanted to expel the bishop of Carthage from office. He reasoned that the bishop’s consecration was invalid, because Felix, who had consecrated him, had played a questionable role during the persecution of Diocletian. There was a separate Donatist denomination for a while, but it was eventually reunited with the historic church. Donatism is very attractive, because it seems to guard the morals of the clergy, however, two separate synods decided that the validity of a sacrament or rite does not depend on the moral character of the person who performs it. The reasoning is twofold:
  • A minister who performs a church rite has no personal authority to do so.

    The authority is in his office, not in his person. By the same principle, if you are given a parking ticket by a policeman who later is found to be crooked, the parking ticket is still valid.

  • If the Donatist position were upheld, the ripple effect would result in chaos.

    Imagine finding out that your baptism, your marriage, and your church membership are all invalid, because the person who ordained the person who ordained your pastor turns out to have been unfit for office! That would make your children illegitimate! What if you were on the church board, and had cast the deciding vote to purchase land for the church, but now, since your membership was invalid all along, you weren’t qualified to be on the board? That would make the decision to buy the land invalid, and that would place the church in contractual default.

Dispensationalism
Dispensationalism is a method of interpreting the Bible that divides history into periods of time called “dispensations.” There are many forms of dispensationalism with anywhere between three and eight dispensations, but all varieties include some form of millennialism. The dispensations are different in some spiritual way, such as God’s will or the identity of God’s people. A popuar contemporary form of dispensationalism can be found in the Scofield Reference Bible, which I do not recommend.

John Nelson Darby, an Anglican priest who joined the Plymouth Brethren and became its most prominent member, is either the author or most effective promoter of dispensationalism. Plymouth Brethren who emigrated to North American brought dispensationalism to the United States and Canada.

Most mainstream theologians are only peripherally aware of dispensationalism, which is not taught in any mainline seminary.

Evangelical
An evangelical is any Christian who holds historically orthodox or conservative theological views. In common usage, the term applies to western Christians outside the Roman Catholic Church. In some countries, particularly Germany, evangelical is a synonym for Protestant. Some, but not all evangelicals are fundamentalists.
Fundamentalist
A fundamentalist is a person of any religion who espouses conservative theological, political, and social views. Fundamentalists are often estranged from the religious establishment, which they sometimes perceive as needing repairs or replacement. Thus there are Islamic fundamentalists, Mormon fundamentalists, and so on. The first time that any group of Christians proclaimed themselves to be fundamentalists was in a meeting that took place in about 1900 in the United States. Accordingly, most Christians who call themselves fundamentalists live within the United States or are affiliated with religious movements that have roots in the United States. In general, they take the Bible at face-value within their own context, and they subscribe to a modern form of millennialism. However, since the term fundamentalist often has the force of an epithet when used by outsiders, many fundamentalists have recently started to call themselves evangelicals.
Gnosticism
In the last century, it was thought that Gnosticism was a second-century heresy that originated within Christianity. Therefore, many people felt that the parts of the New Testament that refer to Gnosticism were written at a late date. Today it is known that Gnosticism was a religious movement that predated Christianity and attempted to assimilate it. Gnosticism taught a complex hierarchy of spiritual beings that had to be worshiped and appeased in the order of their rank to get access to higher and higher beings. It also taught that matter was evil and that spiritual things were good. Therefore, when it was adapted to Christianity, it denied the incarnation on the grounds that a high spiritual being could never be polluted by association with matter. It taught that Jesus was a mortal man who had contact with a high-ranking spirit being called Christ. (Christ is a title and not a personal name. This is as nonsensical as teaching that Queen Elizabeth refers to a mortal Elizabeth who has a contact in the spirit world called Queen.) Gnosticism may have been a contributing factor in the origin of Arianism. A modern form of Gnosticism can be found in the Urantia Book. Gnostic ideas are refuted in the New Testament. (See 1 John 2:22.)
Heresy
A heresy is a systematic teaching that has been declared by the historic Church to be foreign to Christian teaching. Therefore in most contexts, the term heresy only applies to belief systems that were declared as such by one of the seven Ecumenical Councils. In the ancient Church, the penalty for teaching heresy was excommunication. It often happens that a Christian becomes a heretic and then wishes to return to orthodoxy. Historically, the Church welcomes returning heretics with open arms, but receives them as if they had never been Christians. The idea is not to rub their noses in their past, but to re-educate them in the Christian faith.
Today the word heresy has hysterical connotations in common usage, because in western Europe during medieval times, heresy was also a civil crime punishable by death.
Heterodox
The word heterodox is Greek, and it means different teaching in the sense of Galatians 1:6. It is an error in teaching that diverges from orthodoxy, and it is often an honest and correctable mistake that comes from incomplete education or faulty reasoning.

Eastern Orthodox writers often refer to western churches (both Catholic and Protestant) as heterodox churches.

Manichaeism
Manichaeism was once a major world religion, but even though it has completely vanished, it continues to have an effect on western Christian theology.

The founder of Manichaeism was Manicheus, who lived in Mesopotamia. Manichaeism assimilated much of the Christian message, re-interpreting it to fit the Gnostic belief system. Manichaeism affirmed determinism. It viewed matter (and thus also the body) as evil, holding that only the soul was good, so that death was the liberation of the soul from the body.

By contrast, the ancient Church affirmed free will and taught that since God created the body, it is good, that it is part of the whole person, and that God plans to resurrect it on the last day. While the ancient Church always admired personal discipline as a virtue and valued regular prayer and occasional fasting, it rejected Manichaeism ascetic practices as extreme.

St. Augustine of Hippo was a Manichee before he converted to Christianity. He became disillusioned with Manichaeism for several reasons, some of which are listed here in no particular order:

  • He could not live up to Manichaeism’s ascetic demands, which he came to feel were unrealistic.
  • A prominent Manichaean thinker, who was supposed to have answered all his intellectual questions, not only failed to answer them, but had an intellect that Augustine found, shall we say, unimpressive.
  • He conducted a thought experiment in which he discovered that astrology could not possibly be true. Manichaeism, as a deterministic religion, affirmed astrology.

After his conversion, Augustine was pretty much drafted into the priesthood and ended up a bishop. He became a major figure in the Western Church because of his voluminous writings, which include his Confessions and The City of God.

Toward the end of his life, Augustine became cynical because of his obsessive dispute with Pelagius and because the Roman Empire was in its death throes, causing a decline in public order and morality. Augustine never learned Greek, so many of the earlier Church Fathers who wrote in Greek were completely inaccessible to him. He probably never read Irenaeus’ essay defending free will against pagans, for instance. This is probably why the determinism of his Manichaean background seems to have re-emerged in his later writings.

It is important to know about Manichaeism because it had an indirect effect on the Protestant Reformers through Augustine’s later writings, which strongly influenced Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, and John Calvin.

Messiah
Hebrews did not crown their kings, they anointed them. The term messiah means anointed one and it refers either to a mundane Hebrew king, or the apocalyptic king at the end of time. The Hebrews called their kings messiahs because the Hebrew word for king sounds like the name of Molech, a pagan deity.
Millennialism
The term millennialism comes from the Latin mille anni, which means “a thousand years.” Within Christianity, millennialism is the teaching that Jesus will have an earthly reign of one thousand years on earth. Millennialists differ as to whether the earthly reign of Christ precedes or follows the second coming. Postmillennialism, which has largely died out today, teaches that Jesus will come at the end of the thousand years. Premillennialism, which is popular among most fundamentalists today, teaches that the thousand years begin with Jesus’ Second Coming, which, according to their teaching, immediately follows a seven-year period called the tribulation. Premillennialists can be further divided into three camps: post-tribulationists, who teach that Christians will go through the tribulation, mid-tribulationists, who teach that Christians will go through half of the tribulation, and pre-tribulationalists, who argue that Christians will not go through the tribulation at all.

In the early centuries, millennialist teachings entered the Church through the Zealot party of Judaism. The Zealots expected a military Messiah who would rule the world for a thousand years, with his capital at Jerusalem. In the second century, a new convert named Montanus claimed to be a special emissary of the Holy Spirit. He announced that the New Jerusalem would shortly descend from heaven into a town in Phrygia. Montanus thus became the first Christian date-setting millennialist with a large following. Montanus’ most famous follower was Tertullian, one of the early Church Fathers, but according to St. Augustine, Tertullian later left the Montanist movement and returned to orthodox Christianity. In AD 230, the Synod of Iconium declared that baptisms performed by the Montanist sect were invalid. The Council of Constantinople in AD 381 supported the Synod of Iconium and further declared millennialism to be a heresy—not just because of Montanus, but because of other heretical teachers, such as Apollinarius, so it was a general rejection of millennialism, not just of Montanus’ teachings. Because millennialists used Revelation to support their claims—although Revelation contains no statement that Jesus will reign on earth for a thousand years—the Church was slow to accept Revelation as scripture. To this day, Orthodox churches do not use Revelation for scripture readings during worship. End-times groups have sprung up periodically throughout history, presenting the Church with massive pastoral problems when the end-times prognosticators finally fail. This has kept the historic Church on guard against end-times preachers.

The Protestant Reformers, with the exception of Calvin, all considered millennialism to be a heresy. They needed to deal with the issue, because the Protestant Reformation came right on the heels of a period of end-times hysteria that ended in disappointment. (Calvin made no statement on the issue—the issue was not current in his day, and he was incidentally the only Protestant Reformer who was not clergy.) Lutherans are explicitly forbidden to be millennialists, theoretically on pain of excommunication.

Modern millennialism is largely based on the teachings of John Darby, who lived in the nineteenth century. He was a disaffected Anglican priest who left the Church of Ireland and joined the Plymouth Brethren. He was either the author or the most effective promoter of dispensationalism, of which millennialism is an important part. The Plymouth Brethren spread the doctrine through fundamentalist churches, who at the time were unaware of Apollinarius, Montanus, the Synod of Iconium, the Council of Constantinople, and the position of the Protestant Reformers.

At present, millennialism is strongly rejected as a heresy by Orthodox churches and somewhat less strongly by Lutheran churches. Millennialism is tolerated in most other churches, where it is a minority view, but they consider it more a pastoral problem than a heresy. Millennialism is the majority view in fundamentalist churches, which often consider millennialism to be a test of orthodoxy and sometimes even a prerequisite for membership. Modern millennialists argue that only the Montanist form of millennialism was rejected by the Council of Constantinople, that their doctrine is not the millennialism that the early Church and the Reformers rejected, and they cite Christian authors in antiquity to support this view—most of whom were considered heretics in their own age. Modern millennialists used to be quite passionate about their viewpoint, but over the last few decades, they have become more tolerant of historically orthodox teachings about end times, which they term amillennialism. This tolerance probably stems from the fact that the modern millennialist system, like its historical antecedents, has repeatedly failed in its interpretation of world events.

Monarchianism
Monarchianism was considered a heresy in the third century. It stressed the unity of God to the point of denying the Trinity, which was at the time already normative Christian doctrine.

One form of Monarchianism originated with Paul of Samosata, the bishop of Antioch. He was known for his flamboyant preaching style and for requesting applause for his sermons. During the service, he had a female choir singing hymns to praise him. He also managed to amass a large fortune without inheriting money or conducting a business, which aroused some suspicion about him. He taught that Jesus was not divine, but merely a man who had achieved divinity through personal righteousness. This is called Adoptionism or Dynamic Monarchianism.

Sabellius originated another form of Monarchianism in the third century. He taught that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are modes of God’s involvement in human history rather than persons of the Trinity. This called Modalism, Patripassianism, or Sabellianism.

Orthodox
The word orthodox comes from Greek, and it can mean either true teaching or true glory. A teaching that is orthodox is genuine. When written with a capital letter, it can designate the eastern churches after the split between Rome and Constantinople in AD 1054.
Pelagianism
Pelagianism is a largely hypothetical heresy that is named after Pelagius, a British theologian who taught in Rome beginning in the late fourth century. Augustine of Hippo bitterly opposed him in theological debates and even had him declared a heretic by a local council. However, Pelagius was vindicated by higher church authorities. It does not appear that Pelagius was ever actually a heretic.

No Christian theologian or sect has ever systematically advocated Pelagianism, though perhaps individuals have fallen into it inadvertently. During the Protestant Reformation, Lutherans accused the Roman Catholic Church of Pelagianism, but they have since retracted the accusation.

Pelagianism denies original sin, teaching that each person is born without sin but recapitulates Adam’s fall. It also teaches that human beings can take the first steps toward salvation through works, apart from God’s grace. The Council of Orange condemned Pelagianism as a heresy in AD 529.

Polemics
The art of destroying another person’s belief system through argumentation. In old writings, this is sometimes called disputation. For example, a book that refutes the claims of, say, astrology is a polemic. Polemics is the opposite of apologetics, in that it attempts to win people away from another belief system, while apologetics attempts to win them to Christ.
Protestant
Strictly speaking, Protestants were those Roman Catholic clergy and lay people in and around the sixteenth century who sought to reform the Roman Catholic Church from within, but whose efforts were rewarded with excommunication. The term also applies to the churches they founded after they were cast out. General usage has expanded the term to include any western religious group that is not affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church.
Theologoumenon
A theologoumenon is a theological opinion. This word is often applied to opposing arguments in a theological debate, where both sides are rigorously orthodox. This happens because we possess sufficient knowledge to assure our salvation, but we do not possess all knowledge, and we cannot satisfy our curiosity about every matter. For example, scripture does not teach us precisely what demons are, so theories about demons are theologoumena.
Universal Church
The ancient church referred itself as the catholic church; however, after the split between east and west in AD 1054, the term catholic came to refer to only the western part. The modern Catholic Church is the direct continuation of one of the five ancient patriarchates of the ancient catholic Church; the other four patriarchates became what we call the Eastern Orthodox Churches. For that reason, the phrase ‘catholic Church’ in documents written before AD 1054 is often translated ‘universal church.’

The Nicene, Apostles, and Athanasian Creeds were all composed before the split, thus when they speak of the ‘catholic church,’ they are referring to all five patriarchates of the ancient church, not just the patriarchate of Rome and its modern continuation.